First Person

The Special Education Reforms From A Student’s Perspective

Growing up with a disability, I am very familiar with the term “special ed.” I am also aware that the phrase “special education” has a negative connotation.

I remember an incident in middle school where one of my math teachers wrote on the board, “All special ed students will report to room 420 for the state exam.”

Another student who was in special education screamed out, “Don’t call us special ed!”

This incident shows the struggle with identity that students who need Integrated Co-Teaching often find themselves in. (An ICT classroom contains a mixture of students with disabilities and nondisabled students. There are two teachers, one licensed in the general education content area and the other licensed in special education who is responsible for working with students with disabilities.) Many students do not want to be considered any different from our non-disabled peers, but the fact is we are different.

Citywide, the graduation rate for students with disabilities is around 30 percent while the graduation rate for nondisabled students is over 60 percent. The statistics suggest that just because I have a disability, I am half as likely to graduate.

I attend NYC Lab School, a selective high school that is located in Chelsea and was an early adopter of the inclusion model. During my freshman year at Lab, I received a letter during homeroom. The letter said that my school had been selected to participate in the Phase 1 of the Department of Education’s special education reforms. At the time, I didn’t know much about the reforms or how I would be affected.

But during my sophomore year of high school, I realized the benefits of the reforms, which aim to push schools to integrate students with disabilities more often and in more substantive ways.

In my school, only a handful special education students decide to take more than one year of foreign language because the advanced courses do not offer the same level of support, but I knew that I wanted to continue taking Spanish. Participating in the pilot of the reform caused my school to look at special education as a service and not just a place and because of this I was able to request that my Spanish class be supported with an ICT teacher. Knowing that this Spanish class would be ICT-supported allowed my classmates with disabilities and I to be comfortable with taking on the risk of continuing our Spanish studies.

This year, I was able to challenge myself in Advanced Placement U.S. history and Advanced Placement English language and composition because of the special education reforms. Before the reform, students with disabilities were often excluded from taking AP courses because these classes were not always supported with a special education teacher. Now, many schools, including mine, are starting to think flexibly about how to support students with disabilities who want to challenge themselves.

For example, this year at my school juniors who need ICT support were enrolled in an advanced English course that had a special education teacher as well as an English teacher. But any student who wanted to challenge themselves by the taking an Advanced Placement course could sign up for a weekly seminar that allowed us to go beyond the standard curriculum. The AP component was taught by the general education teacher who collaborated with the special education teacher to make sure that the AP curriculum was manageable for all students. This model was extremely successful and encouraged more students with disabilities to take the AP component. Next year, the school has decided to move the AP U.S. history classes onto this model as well. This probably would not have happened without the special education reforms.

Like any movement, the special education reform has attracted some skepticism. Some might fear that the inclusion of students with disabilities could delay the progress of nondisabled students or that teachers have not been properly trained. But as the student representative to the Citywide Council on Special Education, I know that the Department of Education has been holding workshops weekly to train teachers and principals in how the reform will work and how to support students with disabilities in their classes and schools. I also know that that training for the reform will continue throughout the summer and for years to come. The reform is constantly evolving and the city is working with advocacy groups to address their concerns.

I feel that anyone who is “putting all students first” should agree with the goal of the special education reforms, which is to “raise the bar for all students.” I applaud Deputy Chancellor Laura Rodriguez; Lauren Katzman, the former executive director for special education; and the Department Of Education for taking the bold step of working to close the achievement gap between disabled and nondisabled students.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.